Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Sad News

Hello again

I have been out volunteering this evening, with one of the few groups of people who still don't know my diagnosis.  Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing opening up - on the other hand, it felt like the right thing at the time, and there is nowhere left to go but forward.

I was really upset today by a case that I read about in the paper.  Nicola Edgington, aged 31, a schizophrenic, killed her mother in 2005.  She was put in hospital.  Four years later - FOUR YEARS LATER! - she was freed.  She was considered fit and well for release,  and conditionally discharged with the approval of the Ministry of Justice.  She lived in supported accommodation and received treatment in the community.

Now, just another two years down the line, she has 'allegedly' (we have to use that word since the case has not yet come to court, although the facts are not in dispute) murdered again.  She used a stolen butcher's knife to kill Sally Hodkin, a 59 year old grandmother, on a busy London street and also slashed the hand of a twenty-three year old who was waiting for a bus. 

Excuse me, but what sort of a doctor was it who let this woman go free?  What sort of Justice is dispensed by a Ministry who authorised this action?  They let a murderer back into the community.  (Presumably her supervision arrangements failed, we don't know all the details yet).  She suffered a relapse of her illness and killed again.  But that was predictable - she had killed once when she was ill, they must have realised that if she became ill again she might do the same.

This has been bothering me all day.  It is only this evening that I have found the words to express my unease.  I cannot believe that medical professionals think that it is schizophrenia which kills.  This is the only explanation for their action.  This woman was ill, they think, she was not in control of her actions.  The poor woman had an illness.  She had schizophrenia.  Her schizophrenia made her murder someone.  Now we have cured her, she is well, she can go and carry on with her life.  (Although of course she will always have schizophrenia because we have said she does, so we will make sure that she takes her medication and lives by our rules.  Then nobody will get hurt again).

Schizophrenia is not a murderer.  Mental illness does not wield a kinfe and thrust it into the body of another human being.  Any more than alcohol does (I have mentioned here before that a lot more murders are committed by those under the influence of alcohol than by the mentally ill).  A violent person commits a violent crime, and there is no excuse for that.

I do feel some sympathy for the murderer.  I have been severely mentally ill and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.  I know how frightening psychosis is.  But she is still responsible for her crime.

When I was told my diagnosis at the age of twenty-five I was terrified.  The label 'Schizophrenic' made me scared of myself.  I was so relieved that I had never hurt anyone when I was ill, and I confided in a mental health nurse that I was frightened that one day I might.  But she said straightaway, 'If you are not a violent person you will not be violent when you are ill' and she was right.  I had suffered two breakdowns by then and I had never harmed anybody or anything.  I had another breakdown (my third and final as I like to think of it) six years later and I was still completely harmless. 

And I have been harmless ever since, and always will be.  I abhor violence.  (Incidentally, I have never raised a hand to any of my own children.  I think that to do that would make me a failure as a parent - to me it is completely obvious that just as one should never assualt another adult one should even more importantly never assault a child, one's own or anybody else's).     

If you are a violent person though, perhaps a mental illness may bring out the violence in your personality, just as alcohol may.  This should not absolve the perpetrator from responsibility.  If when you are mentally ill you lose control of yourself and you murder another person, or indeed harm anybody in any way, you should not be able to hide behind the protection of a diagnosis.  Okay, put the woman in hospital (although whether a secure hospital is a better environment than a prison is in my opinion open to debate.  I have never been in prison so I can't be sure, but a mental hospital is bad enough).  At least in hospital though, the ill woman can be treated.  But then keep her there.  Keep her there for many many years, as long or longer than if she had been in prison.  Keep her when she is ill, keep her when she is well, protect the public for as long as possible until you are sure you have a reformed character, not just a person who is no longer mentally ill. 

If it is wrong to keep a well person in a mental hospital (is it?) then move her to prison.  This woman killed her mother!  Her own mother!  Her mental illness did not do it.  She did.

Because otherwise, if you let her go, as you did, what you are releasing into the community is a time bomb.  You are letting a murderer go.  You are absolving her of all responsibility for her actions.  Don't worry, you are saying, you did not kill your mother.  Your illness did it.  And you are leaving her free to kill again.

And what you are also doing, doctors and ministry officials, is you are creating more people who will look askance at the other so-called schizophrenics in their midst.  The people who became ill and who suffered but who never hurt a soul in the process.  The ones who are law-abiding, anxious, fearful, often over-medicated, sometimes visibly 'strange', who would never hurt a fly.  The ones with a low life expectancy because of the cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs that they have been taking for most of their lives.  Their neighbours will look at them and shy away, shunning them, fearing them, wondering when they are going to commit their next atrocity and hoping to be as far away as possible when the dreaded event occurs.

I have never hurt anybody and I know for a fact that I never will.  When I was very unwell, I suffered all sorts of delusions, received messages from the newspapers and television.  The world seemed to be set to a constant spin cycle.  I was completely and utterly doo-lally.  But I never got the idea that I should kill anyone - and if I had I never would have acted on it.  Instead I got fearful, stopped driving my car, stopped going out.  Stopped eating.

In the deepest throes of mental illness, even when we have no apparent control over what we are doing or saying, we are still people and we do still know right from wrong.  I was as ill as anybody could be - I cut off from reality because I could no longer cope with it.  But I was not a murderer, and nothing could have made me become one.  'Schizophrenia' whatever it may be, does not create killers.

Schizophrenics who kill are not innocent victims of an illness.  They are not robots who have to murder because a voice tells them to.  They are dangerous, violent individuals.  They need to be locked up.   

Schizophrenia is indelibly associated in the public consciousness as the disease of killers.  It is massively unfair.  So how to stop these assumptions?  There is only one way.  Stop diagnosing people.  Stop labelling them, making them live under the weight of diagnosis and prognosis.  I was told I would have to take medication for the rest of my life and that I would never get better.  I have now been free of medication and free of symptoms for many years.  During this time I have raised a family, seen my mother go through treatment for throat cancer, had a child hospitalised with a serious illness; lived, in other words, through periods of extreme stress.  So maybe there is room for error in the pronouncements and predictions of psychiatrists and mental health workers.  Maybe they don't in fact know everything there is to know about mental illness.  Perhaps their patients know more.

And whether or not this woman does have schizophrenia, if there is such a thing as schizophrenia, it doesn't make any difference to the outcome, except to confuse matters so that she was released four years after murdering someone to go and murder someone else.  (I just had a thought, will they let her go again in another few years?  They could do, with an 'improved supervision package', if they fail to realise that they have been looking at it all wrong).

So on Nicola Edgington's medical record, why not write 'Mentally ill.  KILLER.  DANGER.' (In huge red script).  And on mine 'Mentally ill.  SAD'. (Or LONELY.  Or STUPID.  Or anything really, as long as they don't tell me about it.  Because it is after all, only their opinion). 

Why do I, and hundreds, thousands, millions more like me who have been diagnosed with a mental illness have to be discrimated against because a proportion of the population is violent?

Why did Sally Hodkin have to die on Monday?



  1. Not knowing much about the case, the doctors probably sent her home with a prescription, having only tranquillized her symptoms while in hospital. Some people who would never be violent, become violent when psychotic, just as some people are nice people but mean drunks. In both cases, they would have unresolved "issues." That doesn't mean they are intrinsically bad people nor is there no hope for them. The problem is, getting over psychosis takes work, a lot of work, that the mental health system doesn't support. Lots of families don't support their relatives, either, and the person is thrown back into the same environment from which they came.

  2. Hi Rossa

    I'm just going to write a quick post re your comment...